I opened my mouth to drag in oxygen, but nothing flowed through my parted lips. Nothing. Not a wisp of anything. The pressure increased, bruising my neck. I could feel the muscles and bones grinding together, and my lungs cramped.

Reality washed over me like a draft of frigid winter wind. Whatever he wanted was worse than what could happen in the darkness of the woods. He was going to kill me.

Oh God. Oh God, not like this.

I didn’t want to die like this, on the side of the road. I didn’t want to die at all.

A different kind of panic took root in me, and I swung my arms out, pounding them at his arms and chest, but nothing seemed to faze him. He leaned back, avoiding a direct hit to the face, but my fingers grabbed ahold of the hood. With a burst of energy, I yanked it back.

Horror took away the last little bit of oxygen my lungs had desperately tried to hang on to.

What stared back at me was something out of a horror movie. The attacker’s face was covered by a clown’s mask—the hard, plastic kind. Ghostly white skin with small, red blush on the cheeks greeted my horrified stare. The eyes were wide, with three lashes painted in black. Above the holes were two half circles painted in black. The tiny, pert tip of the nose was painted red, and the lips were carved into an obscenely wide smile, revealing fake buck teeth.

Full of terror, I reached for the mask, but the thing holding me down jerked out of the way. The hood slipped further down, revealing a blue frizzy, curled wig.

A cramp seized my entire body, causing me to jerk against the road. This . . . this was going to be the last thing I saw, I realized dumbly as I tried to smack at him again, but my arms weren’t cooperating with me. My muscles were useless, and my arms fell to my sides, lying at what felt like an unnatural angle.

The clown mask grew closer as it leaned in, stopping a mere inch or so from my face. The pounding in my chest slowed as it tilted its head to the side, watching me from somewhere in the dark holes.

My lips worked around a word that couldn’t be uttered. Please. I repeated it over and over, mindlessly. Please.

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A soft tsking sound radiated from behind the mask, and it shook its head side to side slowly. Tears welled in my eyes, spilling down my cheeks, and the image of the thing blurred as darkness crept across my vision.

Without warning, its hands were gone. My lungs expanded frantically as I dragged in greedy gulps of air. I didn’t understand how, but I could breathe!

I felt it lifting my body by my shoulders, raising me up like dead weight and—

Bright lights flooded the road, and the thing above me froze. It stilled for a second and then slammed me down. The back of my head cracked off the road, blinding me as darkness exploded all around.

Arms were around me again. There were voices—voices I recognized that should’ve meant safety of some sort. Someone was yelling. Feet pounded in every direction. I couldn’t lift my head, but I could see again and all I could see were the stars in the night sky.

They were blurry, but they still looked like tiny tiki torches. The embrace tightened, lifting me up as a voice rasped in my ear, “I got you.”

CHAPTER 2

Attempted murder brought in all the cops from the land I liked to call everywhere.

I tried to sit up in the hospital bed, ignoring the tender pull against my ribs and the dull ache in the back of my head. Mom was right by my side, gently coaxing me to lie back. Her normally coifed dark brown hair was a mess of waves reaching her shoulders, and her hazel eyes, more green than brown, were full of concern.

“Baby, just relax,” she murmured, smoothing the thin blue blanket over my hips. “Don’t move around too much.”

“Listen to your mother,” a voice said from the edge of the bed.

My gaze darted over to where my father sat. The fact that the two of them were in the same room together, let alone within touching distance of each other, signified how big of a deal this was.

My brain hurt.

“Mom,” I sighed, glancing at the two troopers from the state police standing behind her. More officers waited in the hallway—city, county and state. From the moment I’d woken up in the ambulance, police and people had been asking questions at a rapid clip. “I’m okay. Really, I am.”

Mom shook her head as she sat beside my hip. “You were almost . . .” She drew in a shuddering breath. “You could’ve been . . .”

My stomach knotted painfully. Even though she couldn’t finish the sentence, I knew what she meant. Dad reached over, placing his hand where my foot poked up from under the blanket.

I could’ve died, but the attacker had stopped—he’d been lifting me up as if he planned on taking me away from the road. He wanted me to be incoherent but not dead.

And that was far scarier than anything else.

Bile rose up in my sore throat and I leaned back against the flat pillows stacked behind my head. A shudder worked its way through my body as I slowly let out a breath.

Trooper Ritter shifted his weight behind Mom. “I’m sorry to keep asking questions when I know you’re exhausted. . . .”

“It’s okay.” I lifted my hands and started to smooth them down my face, but stopped. The skin on my palms was scratched and raw from where the pavement had torn them open. Unable to really look at them, I lowered them to my sides. “This is important. I know.”

“You kept referring to the attacker as a he, but how can you be sure it was a male?” he asked, holding his hat under his arm. “You said the attacker was wearing a mask and a wig.”

“A clown mask,” Dad muttered, rubbing a hand through his neatly trimmed brown hair. “What is this town turning into?”

Town? What was the world coming to? I swallowed hard, wincing against the pain. Clowns had never scared me before, but now I’d never be able to look at one the same way. “I was lifted up like I weighed nothing, and I sure as hell weigh a good—”

“Honey,” Dad said softly, eyeing me. “I think he gets the point.”

The trooper nodded. “But there are a lot of strong women out there, Ella. I’m only pointing that out because we want to be sure we have everything we need to find this person.”

My gaze shifted to my torn hands. In a flash, I saw them reaching for the door handle. I had been so close to getting into my car—to safety. The memory of being jerked back and picked up was too fresh. I sucked in an unsteady breath.

“Ella,” whispered Mom, placing a trembling hand on my arm as Dad squeezed my foot. “Are you okay?”

I nodded as I raised my gaze to the trooper. “When he first grabbed me, he pulled me back against him.” I bit down on my lip as Dad let go of my foot and shifted away. Tension coursed through his body, pouring into the stuffy room. “I didn’t feel any . . . you know . . .”

Boobs. Breasts. Tits. Tatas. Boobies. I couldn’t bring myself to say any of those words in front of Dad, especially when he looked like he was about to dive-bomb under the bed.

Thankfully the trooper nodded in understanding, and I wasn’t forced to elaborate. He asked a couple more questions and then one that totally caught me off guard. “You’ve been seeing Dr. Oliver. Is that correct?”

“Yeah.” I glanced at my parents, but the question didn’t seem like a big concern to them.

“May I ask why you’re seeing a therapist?”

Heat flooded my cheeks. It seemed stupid to be embarrassed about something like that considering I almost just died on a back road, but I didn’t like the look creeping across the trooper’s face. Like he was wondering what was wrong with me that forced me to see a psychologist.

“We insisted that she see one after the divorce,” Mom answered, and well, that was kind of not a lie. Kind of. “It’s just something she’s stuck with.”

“Okay.” Trooper Ritter glanced over at one of his coworkers, his green uniform stretching against his broad shoulders. “I just have one more question for you, all right?” When I nodded gingerly, he gave me what I guessed was supposed to be a reassuring smile, but it made me shift uncomfortably. “Were you close with Vee Bartol?”

Dad stiffened at the foot of the bed. He turned to the trooper, his face paling. “Isn’t that the girl who went missing?”